I never intended to become an outlaw when I moved to England two years ago. But then I hadn't anticipated the hurdles I'd have to jump to get a British driver's license. I thought it odd that half the cars on the road seemed to belong to driving instructors and the other half had "L" plates. But, I didn't connect this scene to my own life.
I didn't even know I'd have to get a British driver's license until I decided to take some driving lessons. Enter Colin, an instructor with the Automobile Association (AA). I imagined I'd practice driving on the left and mastering England's infamous roundabouts for a couple of hours. Colin had other plans: to help me "unlearn" my 40-odd years of "bad" driving habits and prepare me to pass the driving test. Driving test? "You've heard of the one-year rule?" he asked. That's when I learned I could drive with my US license for only 12 months. I had rented cars in England before moving here and driven without serious mishap. I figured getting a license would be no big deal.
He wished me well and handed me his business card. The next day, I applied for my "provisional license" and bought a copy of the AA's "Theory Test and the Highway Code". By the time I took the written test, I knew every international road sign, the four types of pedestrian crossings, and what to do when sheep block the road. I passed with flying colors.
You can't just walk into a test center and take a number. You have to make an appointment. I scheduled mine at the closest test center with the shortest waiting list (four weeks).
Then I called Colin. He drilled me on "MSM" (mirrors–signal-maneuver), the student driver's mantra. I practiced parallel parking, reversing around a curb, and backing into a parking space. I drove around every roundabout within a 10-mile radius. (The key is not to confuse other drivers by getting into the wrong lane or signaling too early, too late, or not at all.) "Slow down," he shouted, as a huge van hugged my tail.
I had to take a licensed driver to my test, so my neighbor, Carolyn, volunteered. When we arrived, a half-dozen 20-ish-year-olds were already waiting. One kid looked like he was about to throw up. I felt surprisingly calm.
"You'll do fine," said Carolyn, as the examiner and I headed to my car. At the end of the test, I got this sinking feeling as he sat there adding up points. "I'm sorry," he said, "but you failed." I had neglected to check my blind spots when pulling away from a curb. "Don't worry," said Carolyn, as I sat there stunned. "It took me three tries before I passed."
Three weeks later we were back at the test center for Round 2. This time I failed because I entered a roundabout on the outside lane to exit on the right and went two miles over the speed limit. "The test is a lot tougher now," said Carolyn. "I know couldn't pass it now."
I tried another driving instructor whose website promised an 80 percent pass rate. We spent hours on roundabouts – mini-roundabouts, double-mini-roundabouts, and the notorious "Sainsbury" roundabout – named for the supermarket at one end. "Not even the locals get this one right," he said with a laugh.
Then it was back to the test center for my third try. "So, where are you from?" asked the examiner in a flat US accent. I learned he was from California and had lived in England for 30 years. We were chatting away about life as expats as I approached the Sainsbury roundabout in the far right lane. "Take the third exit," he said. I checked my mirrors, signaled left, and moved into the outside lane.
That maneuver was my undoing, as the examiner reminded me when he told me I failed. I should have entered the roundabout in the inside lane to let other drivers know I'd be exiting right. "You're a good driver," he said. "Please come back."
Six months later, I'm still preparing for road test No. 4. I've got the "mirrors-signal-maneuver" down. And, I remember to check my blind spots most of the time. But, I'm not there yet. By the time I'm ready, I'll be moving back to the US, where I won't have to worry about roundabouts every time I hit the road.